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Charlie Ericksen, a U.S. Army veteran, is one of three military veterans on the Flagler County Commission. The others are George Hanns and Nate McLaughlin. (Photo by Jonathan Simmons)
Palm Coast Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2016 3 years ago

County considers veterans court diversion program

The program would divert veterans away from the criminal justice system and into treatment programs.
by: Jonathan Simmons News Editor

Flagler County may create a new veterans treatment court system to divert veterans charged with certain crimes from the justice system into mental health treatment programs or drug treatment programs. 

“The big thing here is to get away from the starting line,” County Commissioner Charlie Ericksen said at a County Commission workshop Aug. 15. “And I think this is a program that deserves our utmost effort to do for our veterans.”

About 23 similar diversion programs are already in place in other counties around the state, including St. Johns County and Volusia County. 

“Our veterans in Flagler County deserve to have one,” said Randy Stapleford, military and veterans coordinator for U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, at the Aug. 15 workshop. “The veterans in Volusia County, they have two veterans treatment courts; they have about 56,000 veterans. They deserve to have two veterans treatment courts. And the veterans in St. Johns County, they have about 20,000 veterans, thereabouts.  They deserve to have a veterans treatment court. It’s good thing.”

Flagler County has about 12,600 veterans, according to numbers from the Veterans Administration, Stapleford said. 

The program would identify veterans at arrest or booking, at their bail hearing, or during pretrial services. 

“This is a phenomenal success, these veterans treatments courts, wherever they’ve been instituted,” said Ed Fuller, who, with Stapleford, has been pushing for the creation of a local program. “The bottom line for Randy and I as the driving force and motivator is: Why not our veterans? Why not Flagler County veterans? ...  We’d like to honor that commitment that they’ve already given to us.”

If such a program is implemented, Fuller told the County Commission, officials would ask about an arrested person’s veterans status at each of those three stages of the process, giving them three opportunities to identify themselves as veterans. Veterans would establish their veteran status by providing a DD214 or equivalent official document. 

Once someone is identified as a veteran, he said, their arrest information would be sent to the Veterans Administration, which would oversee the diversion program.

Veterans court would only handle certain kinds of crimes, and veterans would only be eligible to participate if they were honorably discharged. Some programs in Florida only accept misdemeanors and felony charges, some will also consider domestic violence charges, some accept pre-plea and post-plea cases and some accept jurisdictional transfers, he said. 

“This is drug court, except for veterans,” Fuller said. “And the beauty of this court is that it can be tracked inside drug treatment court. You have all the same resources, except in this particular instance you’ll have a veterans administrator, officer, provided by the VA, and they will provide the services for the veteran.”

Sarasota County and Manatee County track their veterans court programs inside their drug court programs, Fuller said. 

County Commissioner Nate McLaughlin said the program seemed similar to the pretrial release program, “only the qualifying factor here would be that you’re an honorably discharged veteran. Almost mirrors it,” he said. 

Fuller and County Commissioner Barbara Revels clarified that the program would also offer alternatives, much the way drug court programs do. 

“What this does — this unleashes services to veterans that they don’t have right now,” Fuller said. “To advocate for this is really a simple thing of: We have veterans, we have needs, they certainly have fought for our country, and they have suffered some injuries — mental illness, substance abuse, alcohol, traumatic brain injury, PTSD — by allowing us to go forward with this, those avenues will be open to them.”

Revels said that because Flagler County has a relatively small population, it might make sense to have the proposed veterans court nested inside or run alongside the current drug court program, as is done in Sarasota County and Manatee County.

“Maybe the drug court team could grow slightly with a veterans expert, or whoever an appropriate person might be to be part of that team,” she said. 

“That’s exactly how we’d like to see this proceed,” Fuller replied.

Flagler County Sheriff Jim Manfre supported the idea.

“The reason why this veterans court is crucial, similar to the drug court, is if you don’t track veterans, they get lost in the system,” he said. “It’s hard for the court system to marshal those resources every single day and every single time a veteran is coming through. It’s the same thing with drug court. By sort of keeping them on one particular court at one particular time, the VA can be there, and other resources can be there, to assist that veteran if they avail themselves.”

The commission had a consensus to move the proposed program forward.

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